Posted by: yashada | March 25, 2009

I love TED

If I had to list all my fav videos on TED, then that list would be endless.

So, since I have some time on my hands right now, I shall post a link to one of my fav TED videos everyday.

Here is the link for today:


TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from those three worlds. Since then its scope has become ever broader.

TED believes passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world. So the people at TED are building a clearinghouse that offers free knowledge and inspiration from the world’s most inspired thinkers, and also a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other.

You can also subscribe to TED talks here.

Posted by: yashada | January 15, 2009

A Secret Uncovered

There was an essay competition organized by a local economic group, the title for the essay being ‘ Global Warming-Challenges for India’.  This post is about a discovery I made while preparing for the essay.

There is a certain website I stumbled onto during one of my searches:

At first glance, it seemed like a pretty good one. It said

World Climate Report, a concise, hard-hitting and scientifically correct response to the global change reports which gain attention in the literature and popular press. As the nation’s leading publication in this realm, World Climate Report is exhaustively researched, impeccably referenced, and always timely. This popular web log points out the weaknesses and outright fallacies in the science that is being touted as “proof” of disastrous warming. It’s the perfect antidote against those who argue for proposed changes to the Rio Climate Treaty, such as the Kyoto Protocol, which are aimed at limiting carbon emissions from the United States.”

“Acclaimed by those on both sides of the global warming debate, World Climate Report has become the definitive and unimpeachable source for what Nature now calls the “mainstream skeptic” point of view, which is that climate change is a largely overblown issue and that the best expectation is modest change over the next 100 years. WCR is often cited by prominent scientists and lawmakers and is a surprisingly enjoyable read—which may account for its broad appeal.”

So it appeared like a place where I could get a lot of information about the ‘other side’, the side of ‘climate skeptics’ who have apparently interpreted the data diffrently. But the more I read the more I disliked the way the authors wrote. I found their writing too inflamatory and simply non-professional. For a while I didn’t give  much thought to their style of writing but after a point I thought they had crossed the line.

So I did a bit of gooling on the authors of this website and about the website itself. One google search led to another and I ended up uncovering a lot of nasty stuff.

I discovered that ‘world climate report’ is a newletter of the Greening Earth Society. Aaah, such a plesant name! This Greening Earth Society makes you think of hard working dedicated people working together to make the world a better place, battling major fund crunches. But in reality  I found  that this society is funded by no other than Western Fuels Association.  Hmm, a fuel association funding climate skeptics, how convinient.  Groups established by industry bodies like the Western Fuels Association have been criticized as Astroturf organizations, since they appear superficially to be grassroots initiatives.

But the story does not end here, through some more googling I found yet another website by Greenpeace called Uncovering Exxon Secrets. Fyi, Exxon is the world’s largest  fuel company.

 Greenpeace has uncovered a network that channelizes money from Exxon to institutes like, well you guessed  it, Greening Earth Society. I quote from the Greenpeace’s webite:

“With names like “The Cato Institute”, “The Heritage Foundation”, “Frontiers of Freedom Institute” and “Tech Central Station” you might think these groups are independent organisations. You would imagine their opinions are unbiased and impartial. You might assume they are balanced and neutral.”

“But if you did, you’d be wrong. These and many other think tanks, which have names designed to hide their real agenda, are putting forward opinions denying or debasing the science behind global warming. And they are getting funding from the fossil fuel industry which is causing the problem.”

You  should see the names of some other  NGOs and organizations this company funds – Arfica fighting malaria, Accuracy in Media, Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Centre for Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Climate Change, Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, Climate Research Journal, Citizens for  the Environment, Alliance for Climate Strategies, Global Cimate Coalition, Institute for Biosphere Research, International Climate Science Coalition…the list is endless.

Greenpeace’s website also says:

“When these groups (like World Climate Report and Greening Earth Society) talk to media they don’t like to mention who funds them. They want the media to believe that they are independent commentators. So journalists are often left with the wrong impression – and so is the public.

ExxonMobil, also known as Esso or Mobil, is the world’s biggest oil company. It has plenty of money and is not afraid of using it to fund pseudo-science and front groups to shoot down anyone speaking out about global warming. Since 1998 ExxonMobil has spent more than US$ 12 million on climate sceptics.”

Greenpeace’s  website has actually documented Exxon Mobil’s funding of climate skeptics themselves. Dr. Michaels, one of the authors of World Climate Report has acknowledged that 20% of his funding comes from fossil fuel sources. He received $63,000 for research on global climate change from Western Fuels Association,

I was disgusted by looking at the  enormous scale in which autoturfing is being done by this Corporation. The silver lining is that their dirty deeds have been exposed.

Check these websites out for yourself and spread the word! Spread the awareness!!

Posted by: yashada | October 21, 2008


The Discovery and National Geographic channels were launched in India when I was in school. I remember being glued to the TV watching fascinating beasts and equally fascinating people studying them. I wished I could join this band of cool conservators and adventurers, travel across the globe and save the jaguar in the amazon or watch chimps communicate or release turtles into the wild.
So when I heard that people were, in fact, trying to save turtles in my own backyard I jumped right in as a volunteer.

The Sahyadri Nisarga Mitra is (SNM), is an NGO based in Chiplun, Maharastra. They have met with success in their attempt to save turtle eggs that hatch on the Konkan beaches. Locals used to eat turtle eggs, but volunteers of SNM educated them about the importance of turtles. They eventually took local fisher folks into confidence, who became their informers. Whenever a turtle nest was spotted, efforts were made to guard the nest by building temporary fences around the nest. In case there were many nests, hatcheries were made and eggs were protected from stray dogs, foxes and other predators.

Marine turtles live their entire lives in the sea, but the female comes on land to lay her eggs. She comes roughly on the same beach that she was born on to lay her eggs. She lays about 150 to 200 eggs at a time. After about 6-8 weeks the eggs hatch and the tiny little hatchlings find their way to the sea. They are attracted by the moonlight reflected over the waves- which steers them towards the sea. But bright city lights coming from the opposite direction may confuse them and they end up going the wrong way, i.e. inland. Hatchlings also fall prey to natural predators like foxes, birds etc. They also have natural enemies in the sea. It is estimated that only one or two turtles from a single batch survive up to adulthood. Turtles are also falling prey to trawler nets. Trawlers cast their vast nets in the water for about 9-10 hours. If a turtle gets entangled in it, it can’t come up to the surface to breath. It needs to come to the surface to breath every hour or so. So the poor thing suffocates to death.

The olive ridley turtle is known to nest along the entire coast of India. SNM wanted to find out if turtles nest north of Ratnagiri, near Mumbai.
A workshop was held to gather volunteers for the job. Volunteering work involves traveling along coastal villages north of Mumbai and talking to the local fisher folk. They are the best people to give accurate information about turtle sightings. The work also involves telling them about the importance of turtles in the food chain, and that their conservation will finally help in the conservation of other fish in the sea.
The first trip took place last Sunday, on the 19th of October. Fisherfolk said they remembered lots of turtles coming to the beach to lay eggs and that they used to eat the eggs. But now, it has been 15 years since a turtle came to lay eggs on their beach. It sure was disheartening to hear that. But we had traveled to a couple of villages very close to Mumbai and maybe the further away we go from this crowded and polluted city , the better the condition of the beaches and better the chances of turtles visiting them.

But I can’t help myself ask the question, is this whole effort to release turtles into the sea the real solution to the problem? According to one paper, “Programs such as headstarting, captive breeding, and hatcheries may serve only to release more turtle into a degraded environment in which their parents have already demonstrated that they cannot flourish.” Even if we do release them into the ocean, what are the chances of them surviving in an environment that we know is hazardous for them? If we really want to save them, we must look at the larger picture. The authors of the above paper suggest ‘turtle excluder‘ nets, nets that only catch the target fish and let turtles go free. They also suggest low pressure sodium lamps on beaches so the turtles don’t get disoriented.

Asking a trawler owner to set up turtle excluder devices, asking for special lighting near beaches will be easier said than done. After all, why will a trawler owner be interested in setting up some new device when he is not getting anything out of it? That would mean asking the Government to give them subsidies, or tax benefits; which ultimately means a lot of paper work and probably years stuck in a red tape.

YOu might call me a cynic, but there is a thin line between being a cynic and a realist.

Posted by: yashada | October 6, 2008

Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine declared

The 2008 Nobel prize in Physiology and Medicine has been awarded to Harald zur Hausen for his discovery of human pappiloma viruses causing cervical cancer and to France’s Francoise Barre-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier for their discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus.

For a full report:

The New York Times Report

Posted by: yashada | September 28, 2008

150 years since Darwin

On the 29th  and 30th of  August, Sophia’s Women’s College along with the Indian Academy of Sciences had organized an event celebrating 150 years since Darwin, marking a hundred and fifty years of the Origin of Species. This post is about the event and what I felt about it. (Since it was held about last month, the post is a bit over due, i know:)

The lecture-workshop comprised of talks by speakers from a varied biological fields. Dr. Shashidhara from IISER, Pune spoke briefly on evolution of insect wings and focused primarily on evolution in general and behavioral adaptations. The most memorable thing about his talk was the clips he showed of Drosophila flies learning to overcome obstacles.

There was a lecture by Dr. Satyajit Rath, from NII New Delhi. That was one superb lecture. Immunology is not really my strong point. I studied it briefly in my third year (TY) and haven’t touched it since. It didn’t really grab my attention in TY and I had not put much thought to it. He started off by asking some basic fundamental questions that I, even though I had a brief encounter with the subject in my TY had not bothered to ask myself or my teacher. The lecture gave some amazing insights into the evolution of immunocytes in general. He skillfully brought home certain points, he navigated through a sea of information, picked up just the right bits and strung them all together and presented it to us like a conjurer doing his favourite magic trick. At some point I half expected him to end his talk with a  “Woala!” .  For example, he asked, once an immunocyte recognizes a foreign body, does it do something about it, and if yes, how does it go about doing something about it? One of the answers is phagocytosis, an immunocyte ‘eats up’, in lay man’s terms the foreign body that has entered into you. Now he made us think about the phenomenon of phagocytosis itself. During development of an organism, that is, when the animal is inside an egg or a womb, there is a morula stage which is followed by the blastula stage: basic developmental biology. How does the blastula form from the morula? Answer – When some cells in the morula die, it eventually leads to the formation of a blastula. And what happens to the cells that die? They are eaten up by the neighbouring cells, in other words, they are phagocytosed. So you see, phagocytosis has a non-immune significance!! Woala!! I knew about blastula formation, I also knew about phogocytosis as an immunological function, but somehow, I had never put the 2 and 2 together, even though the evidence was right under my nose. Sitting at the back of room I imagined tiny light bulbs lighting above everyones’ heads.

I would have liked him to continue his lecture and elaborate further on the note with which he ended it. His statement that adaptive immune system is closely related to the success of the vertebrate body design made me raise my eyebrows and I think my jaws dropped too. It left me craving for more!

Dr Rath’s lecture gave me the same feeling I get when I look at  a start studded sky. A feeling of being tiny, even minuscule  compared to all the stuff that’s around me.

On day 2 there was a memorable lecture by Dr. Anindya Sinha from NIAS, Bangalore, titled ‘Monkey in the Mirror’. The kind of work they are doing is simply awesome! And I feel like doing something like that. His lecture focussed on the social behavior of Bonnet Macaques of the Bandipur National Park. I have a lot of interest in ethology but no practical experience, (unless you count going to national parks for trails or treks).  So I was hanging on to every word he uttered and tried to get as much out of the talk as I could.

One interesting thing I learnt was something called Lamarckian Inheritence System, where essentially inheritance of acquired characters is possible without genetics coming into the picture. Instantly I thought of Richard Dawkins and his Extended Phenotype and the concept of memes. I guessed there isn’t much of a difference between the two, and Dr. Sinha sort of confirmed that when I asked it later.

Throughout the lecture sessions we were continuously shifting gears as talks progressed from the micro level to the macro level. The talks were given by scientists working with development of nervous systems to wildlife biologists who work in the field. And throughout all these gear shifts, evolution did not budge from centre-stage. And that’s what I liked most about the event. How else could a lecture workshop that began with Dobzhansky’s famous words “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” be conducted anyway?

Also, there was a panel discussion on the plight of evolution in school and college text books. But there was something essentially wrong in the whole affair, according to me. We were a room full of people who agreed on the point that evolution is not given the respect it deserves in our textbooks, that it is side-lined by other biological fields that are actually meaningless without evolution in the first place. The fact that we had all signed up for this workshop I think, was proof enough that we had the same viewpoints on this issue. This only lead to a lot of ‘going around in circles’ and not reaching any specific conclusions or solutions. For there were no ‘solutions’ as such to be reached I suppose, we had already reached a consensus on this issue before the discussion actually began! If there was a representative from the Ministry of Education or someone who has actually written school text books, (though I do remember someone mentioning Dr. Rath used to write for CBSC texts) I guess the discussion would have had some direction. But anyway, it was simply great to know that I was in the company of people who have the same opinions as mine.

Posted by: yashada | September 21, 2008

How do animals eat?

Funny how being a Masters student makes you ask such fundamental questions, when I should have asked this question to myself when I first started studying biology.

We tend to take so many things for granted. If we humans consume food by inserting it in our mouths, chewing it and swallowing it, does that mean all other organisms do the same? Well, birds have a mouth, so do snakes and turtles, and frogs and salamanders, and even fishes. Food enters it in a way similar to our own, and they just…eat! Well, not really. And anyway  this list covers only the vertebrates which account for 2 per cent of all life on earth. What about the rest of the animals?

I was fascinated today to learn that a basic process such as feeding is carried out in a myriad different ways. Animals such as star fish use sieves to filter feed. Tentacles are used by worms. Mucus gets coated on these tentacles and food particles stick to them, which is then consumed by the organism.  Many animals trap food particles in mucous strands, webs, or sheets secreted from the mouth or some other specialized feeding structure and ingest the food-laden mucus. These are all examples of ‘Suspension Feeding’, where an animal removes food particles suspended in the ambient medium, (mostly water but sometimes air, a spider ‘filter feeds’ via its web) and consumes it.

There are 3 other major types of feeding patterns- manipulative mechanisms for acquiring large food particles, sucking fluids or soft tissues and surface absorption of nutrients with no specialized feeding mechanism and often no digestive tract.

You might expect suspension feeding, to be present in phylogenetically older animals. But surprisingly, this feeding pattern exists in chordates as well. It is rare in vertebrates, which comes under the group of chordates, but is present nonetheless. For example, tadpoles filter feed. And so do baleen whales. One of the largest animals on earth, the blue whale depends on the tiniest organisms to sustain it! There are examples of birds filter feeding too. The highly modified beaks of flamingoes act as seives, helping them eat algae, diatoms ans small crustaceans.

Manipulative Mechanisms For Acquiring Large Food Particles- A number of animals simply swallow large inactive food particles. Crocodiles’ teeth are meant for grabbing prey but they can’t tear meat apart. You must have seen some documentary on the National Geographic where 2 crocs are holding a piece of wildebeest at 2 ends and rotating on opposite sides to break it apart, like the way you unwrap a candy from its wrapper. They just gulp large food pieces down their throat. The egg-eating snake dasypeltis is a remarkable example of this ability to swallow large objects. Not only is swallowing large eggs a seemingly impossible task, but so is breaking the egg shell and the shell membranes inside the stomach quite difficult. Since these animals don’t chew their food, I suppose they must have some pretty strong enzymes in their gastric  cavities to do the job of breaking the food into its constituent particles.

Surface Nutrient Absorption- In contrast to this, some parasites that live inside other organisms, i.e. endoparasites can absorb the required nutrients directly from their rich environment. For example, consider a tapeworm residing in the gut of a human or pig. The surrounding environment is full of rich nutrients. It simply absorbs these nutrients to sustain itself.  This capacity has totally eliminated the need for a digestive system and indeed these organisms do not possess any digestive apparatus as such.

Sucking Fluids or Soft Tissues- Many animals feed on fluids or soft plant or animal tissues by piercing and sucking. Many invertebrates use this type of feeding pattern such as mosquitoes and butterflies. But, as before, vertebrate examples do exist, such as the vampire bat.

These examples are just a tip of the iceberg. Any basic physiology textbook abounds with many many more such examples. What we can see from this, I guess, is that a given goal (ingestion of food) can be performed in so many different ways. The environment these animals lived in acted as a selection pressure for the evolution of these feeding patterns. Maybe prehistoric tapeworms did have a digestive tract, but it slowly degenerated as it was of no use. But at the same time, they may have had to evolve better membrane porosity to let the surrounding nutrients through. A tough job considering they should have strong membranes to live in an environment that also has protease enzymes- enzymes that can break a membrane. Afterall, they are living in a place where all organic matter gets broken down into its constituent molecules.

Posted by: yashada | September 10, 2008

Large Hadron Collider

So the experiment that has been in the spotlight for some time now has started well, according to BBC. It seems today was only a test run where they fired 2 rounds of protons. They might do the real thing before the facility closes down for the winter. Here is the full report:

Plus, here is a link to a rap song, yes, a rap song, explaining the basics of the LHC: (Thanks Raunak for the link)

Posted by: yashada | September 6, 2008

Check This Out!

This article says that flightless birds such as the ostrich, emu etc haven’t evolved from one common ancestor. In fact, they represent a good example of parallel evolution- facing similar environmental conditions they took took the same evolutionary course.

Some other related links:

The person in charge of the research, Dr Edward Braun

Tree of Life Project

Posted by: yashada | August 31, 2008

These are pictures of a practical we did in our lab. It’s a fairly basic experiment where you try to track the movement of cells in a developing embryo.

During the developmental stages of an animal, there comes a stage when there is a mass migration of cells, called gastrulation. So a number of cells move from one place to another. This movement can be tracked by using non-toxic dyes.

In our practical we used chick embryos. A small window is made with a blade on the egg shell. The dye (which is jelly like, since its made in agar) is placed on any portion of the embryo and the window is sealed. The egg is incubated for about 24 hours. The next day the window is opened and the embryo with the yolk sac is removed out carefully. A diff rent portion of the embryo takes up the dye colour if the cells have moved. 

 Remember that all these things must be done in sterile conditions, that there shouldn’t be any contamination. This is because for the cells to take in the dye and start moving, the embryo must be alive.

The egg that I got was around 24 hours old. I placed the dye at the head and the cells near the somites (which later form the muscles of the back, and some other organs near the back) had taken up the colour the next day.

Developmental Biology is something we learnt in our third year Bachelor studies. This practical is for our Masters. (This is not the time or place to talk about our pathetic syllabus, so I shall refrain from a lot of ‘%^%$&%^*% ‘, for now). But it was incredible to actually see it happen, it was a moment of realisation of the fact that all that you have been studying is for ‘real’. All those boring tedious diagrams suddenly were alive in my head. 

 This was one of those times when the stuff you read in your text book that seemed dry and boring at the time simply turns into a fascinating new discovery, on a personal level, and you can’t help yourself but fall in love with it.

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